Officers and Men of the Company/Squadron who have been killed in action.
Operation ‘Freshman’ which took place on 19 November 1942
Lt AC Allen, RE
Corporal JCL Thomas.
Lance-Corporal. A Campbell.
Lance-Corporal FW Bray.
Driver JTV Belfield
Sapper W Jacques.
Driver E Pendlebury.
Driver G Simkins.
Sapper L Smallman.
Sapper JM Stephens.
Operation ‘Market’ which took place from 17 September 1944 to 26 September 1944.
Lt WH Skinner, RE
Sapper LT Anderson.
261 Airborne Park Squadron, Royal Engineers.
In July 1939, the 261 (West Country) Field Park Company, Royal Engineers was formed as a ‘Second Line Territorial’ Unit of the 43rd [45th] (Wessex) Infantry Division, having its HQ in Bath, Somerset. On the outbreak of war it became a part of the 43rd [45th] Division and for the next period, of just over two years, until 7 January 1942, it suffered the coming and going of six OC’s and six moves and employment in the United Kingdom on Home Defence and GHQ Duties.
However, much experience was gained on operational work right under cover of ‘Battle of Britain’ aircraft in Kent, and on various large scale exercises which took place in England during this period.
The unit was then honoured by being considered suitable for what was called ‘The Airborne Division’. On 7 January 1942 the unit, under the command of Major Sir TB Redwood Bart, RE was despatched to join this new Division. 261 (West Country) Field Park Coy, RE went complete, except for the Bridging Platoon and a 45th Division Stores Section RE, which were cast off on 1 January 1942 and remained at Felsted in Essex, the company’s old location. The 45th Division had at this date, became a lower establishment Division and lost most of its former glory.
The first location for the unit under its new command, if it can be called that, as there was no proper Divisional Staff – the Senior Officer being an SO, RE (later to become Col MCA Henniker, DSO, OBE, MC) was at Wickham in Berkshire. Hence situated in the grounds of a very poorly appointed English mansion approximately 160 Other Ranks and 3 Officers with much transport started to think about being airborne.
Life was one continual round of conferences, training programmes and ‘weeding out’ of unsuitables; doing any work asked for, to make varied HQ’s comfortable and many more jobs just to please the eye.
Under administrative command of the 31st Independent Brigade, later to become 1st Air Landing Brigade, life was not to difficult: in fact the DAA and QMG supplied the Second-In-Command, Capt. JN Chivers, RE with an Army Charger, since the unit had stabling and 6 such beasts arrived at Brigade HQ out of the blue. The horsemanship and the stead do not make pretty reading, so the matter will not be discussed further.
During the 6 months the unit was in this location it was quite obvious that for some time it was to act as the experimental manufacturing unit – a forerunner of AATDC Before panniers were conceived, a container of the same size was made from flat metal and chicken wire and fitted in a bomb bay – the first sheet copper ‘Pegasus’ was made for a table centrepiece in ‘A’ Mess for a visit of his Majesty – an airborne raft of recce boats was made which was very original and very unsatisfactory. Then came the first real excitement – the General heard that, very secretly hidden at Ringway, was a prototype of a large glider called the “Horsa”, only paper and plywood built by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to see what it would look like. However, from that mock-up to this day there has been little alteration, and inside a month the same model was copied in every respect and taking shape in Berkshire. Every piece of timber, down to the smallest stick, was cut from 9” x 3” timber and turned out by the unit workshop. This mock-up was immediately installed in Bulford where a large part of the Division had now concentrated. Everybody was doing loading trials with little idea of centres-of-gravity, etc, but full of enthusiasm, including the maintenance party, who continually repaired the mock-up.
At this time, three “Horsas” were under production at Portsmouth by Messers Airspeed Ltd, and it was surprising and gratifying to see how truthfully our model represented what presently would be a fully fledged glider.
In June 1942, much against the wishes of the unit, they concentrated in Bulford. But it was for the good as much needed to be done in respect of re-organization and establishments, etc, all needing close co-operation.
Before this move, however, Major Sir TB Redwood Bart, RE had been dispatched on a parachute course – only to damage a leg on his first descent and be put out of action for some time and was replaced in May 1942 by Major ID Irvine, RE who had previously been the Adjutant.
Now in Bulford, the unit did manage occasionally to get a few “air experience” trips in a “Hotspur” glider; it was truly an experience too. Often the glider pilots, who were few and far between, prefixed the conversation with, “This is my first live load”.
The 'Whitleys' with unfailing regularity caught on fire in a minor way or just went “hors de combat”. But all this was later rectified and few worries arose. A very select few went on parachute courses; many good men were not up to medical standards and were posted, and the strength of the unit dropped considerably, but not the demands on its resources.
During the next few months, until the end of 1942, many odd ideas and suggestions were tried out in the unit. The first airborne air compressor was mounted on wheels for towing purposes – and flown; Bailey Bridge was loaded, to the unit’s satisfaction, and flown behind a “Whitley” which nearly burnt itself out, and, in any case, did not have permission for flight trials towing a “Horsa-load” of Bailey Bridge!! Super-light “Bangalore” torpedoes were made and tried; rafts and bridges of every conceivable type were produced. Rifle-fire simulators were designed and produced until, each time they were demonstrated, the staff required one more or a larger type of weapon to be simulated – and it got a little too much.
The workshop routine and experimental side was so interesting and varied, and when the end of the year came it was decided to introduce a section of a Workshop and Park Company, under Lt Senegal, RE (Later Major. Senegal, RE), and attach it to 261 (West Country) Field Park Coy, RE to relieve the unit of this work. This section of a Workshop and Park Company eventually formed a nucleus of the AATDC and there-after carried out future experimental work and production as a special unit under command of Major Senegal, RE
Mechanical equipment was always a possible airborne requirement and much time and trouble was taken in trying to make a tractor weighing barely a ton with an improvised bulldozer attachment do a job of work. The many demonstrations of airborne equipment given from time to time always featured this and a carefully arranged pile of previously loosened soil pushed by the varied machines always went down well. But later it was realised that proper machines would have to be used, and the Workshop and Park section commenced to break down standard mechanical equipment into suitable glider loads.
In October 1942 Major ID Irvine, RE and the CRE were actually concerned in the planning of the unsuccessful operation “Freshman”, when, in the next month, the Workshop Officer – Lt AC Allen, RE and 9 men from the unit, amongst others, took off from Wick in Scotland in two “Horsa” gliders to sabotage the hydro-electric station at Rjukan in Southern Norway. It is known that all these gallant men died on landing or were killed. Much organisation for the operation was done within the unit and great secrecy maintained.
In December 1942 Major Irvine, due to sickness, handed over command of the unit to Major JCA Roseveare, DSO, RE who, after a couple of weeks, was instructed to proceed on a parachute course and on return to take over the 3rd Parachute Squadron, RE
The Second-in-Command, Captain JN Chivers, RE, who had been by this time standing in quite frequently, kept things going until Major FH Lowman, DSO, MBE, RE who had been on the Divisional Staff as a GSO II arrived at the end of January 1943.
Much spade work had been put in prior to the arrival of Major Lowman, (now Lt-Col Lowman), but by incredible effort and many visits to the War Office, etc, the organisation on which the unit had set itself up was put into print.
A new establishment and AF G1098 published in March 1943 did, much to everyone’s regret, re-designate the unit as “261 Field Park Company, RE (Airborne)” with effect from 17 March 1943. The strength was four officers and ninety-eight other ranks, excluding Light Aid Detachment REME attached. The set-up was impractical in many ways – a large AF G1098 and only three x three-ton lorries; a full airborne workshop and a unit consisting of an HQ Troop [Section/Platoon], Workshop Troop [Section/Platoon] and a Stores Troop [Section/Platoon]. However, overseas service would have to prove it, and it was with plenty of optimism that crating-up, etc, started at the end of March.
On 15 May 1943 the unit left Bulford for an unknown destination, less red berets and with much secrecy and hidden tropical kit. Some hours before leaving it was decided that Major FH Lowman should remain behind for a new appointment, (it proved later to be as CRE of the 6th Airborne Division), and the Second-in-Command, Captain JN Chivers, RE took over command of the unit on this date and has retained it until this day.
Much speculation arose, and boarding the Ship at Liverpool left little doubt that the destination was to be North Africa, since the 1st Parachute Brigade had already been there for some months. So, after just over three and half years in England, the unit found itself safely at Oran on 26 May 1943 – (A rude introduction to so called active service). All the AF G1098 was on one ship and personnel were on another. There was a lapse of several weeks before the equipment joined up. Fortunately, the 2nd Light Aid Detachment REME attached to the unit travelled separately and, by good luck and much co-operation, ASM: JW Mathewick, REME helped greatly by re-joining the unit with their small amount of transport a day after arriving in Oran, which proved most valuable during the weeks of waiting for the unit’s own transport.
One cannot pass here the efforts of the corporal-cook, Corporal CJ March, ACC, who, under the intense sun, managed to feed nearly one hundred and thirty officers and men throughout the time in a concentration area using only a jack knife and petrol tins as equipment, and maintained his sanity despite the “fighter cover of African flies” that ranged above his head throughout the day.
One need hardly say that the unit learnt from these and many other experiences what things should travel with personnel in the future whatever the orders may be to the contrary.
On arrival of the transport and the stores the unit moved by devious routes some nine-hundred miles to the comparative paradise of an olive grove at M’Saken near Sousse which proved to be its location for the next three and a half months, and now felt at home concentrated amongst the remainder of the Division, who moved in at the same time.
Some mention must be made of the Stores Officer, Lt DN Flatt, RE who later left the unit in Italy. He, with great exertion and initiative managed to get a large proportion of the Divisional store and all unit AF G1098 and most of the personnel from Oran area on an incredibly old French train whose drivers, on the slightest pretext, would drop off a couple of trucks here and there and leave them to the mercy of the Arabs, who always appeared from nowhere. The driver’s excuse was that the engine would not take it – but, thanks to Lt Flatt and the spirit of the men, it did, despite a five-day rail trip and one complete unloading due to change of gauge at Tunis.
A few days before the arrival of 261 Field Park Coy, RE (Airborne) in Africa, it had been declared a non-operational theatre after the Tunisian victory – so the whole Division’s future in the area appeared very pointless.
Little entertainment, heat and mosquitoes were countered by Mediterranean bathing, getting comfortable and the Divisional Staff aptitude to organise training. The unit was on the usual type of work – from latrine construction and water supply upwards. Eighty to one hundred and twenty feet deep wells proved not quite the same as water supply schemes in England, added to which the Arab-owners objected and always produced more water with a camel and water bag!!
Later during this period, the planning for the Sicily operation came into full swing, and although the unit took no part, except for a salvage detachment under the Workshop Officer, Lt AE Hepper, RE who arrived there on about “D plus seven”. One good job was done on a mass production basis – the construction of three extra seats each for one hundred and twenty gliders scheduled to take part in the operation. This was done in record time – a first class job made from such timber as there was in Sousse which had already been bombed.
Lt-Col MCA Henniker, RE, who always felt the unit should have its share of really active service, also arranged about this time for detachment of twelve or so men under Lt DN Flatt, RE to move down to Tripoli and join a gunner unit who, it proved later, were to land at Salerno in the Italy campaign. Their job was to clear mines for the gunners, which they later did and with only a couple of slight casualties. They were not seen by the unit until about the middle of October and crossed over from the West coast of Italy to join the unit at Sammichele on the East side.
After the initial phase, they were given the pleasant task, under the Royal Navy, of destroying small craft, motor launches, etc, which were submerged around the port area. The drill was found to be – to lower a Teller-mine on a piece of signal cable into a suitable hatchway or opening which could usually be seen through the twelve feet of water, and then slide additional mines down the wire using the handle as a guide. About half-a-dozen with a detonator and fuse to a central mine usually completely removed most of the craft quite satisfactorily, but the performance in a recce boat and rowing away at high speed proved a little exacting.
Fortunately, prior to the various detachments being sent off, the late OC had managed to get a new Second-in-Command sent out to join the unit, and not long after the unit got settled at M’Saken, Captain WT Holgate, RE arrived and relieved Major JN Chivers, RE of much work despite the heat which, for some weeks caused him to sit on his own surrounded by a hessian screen for hours on end!!
Things began to move quite fast after the Sicily campaign and, with little knowledge of what was really in the air, about half the unit moved up to Bizerta under the OC early in September with other Divisional elements with a view to getting on any type of naval craft and moving in to Italy. It is impossible to say definitely what did happen now – half the unit was at Bizerta and the balance under Captain Holgate one hundred and eighty miles south in its normal location.
The OC attended daily conferences at Advanced Divisional HQ in the Bizerta area. Orders as to what was to move and what was to remain altered daily. After each conference, contact by Despatch Rider or very poor signal line was made with Captain Holgate who had his own worries. He had been given space for twenty-five tons of equipment and stores to be put on a coastal ship and sent out from Sousse destined for Italy and little idea of what may be wanted. However, the final selection was admirable and diverse and the ship left with the Company Sergeant Major in charge of the stores, and much to everyone’s surprise later arrived in Italy.
The Workshop Officer, on the move up with his Troop [Section/Platoon], rode his motor-cycle into an American truck, getting a very good dose of concussion. He forgot everything until visited by the OC in hospital, whereupon he exclaimed; “I know you! Where am I?”, and then felt much better.
A Despatch Rider was sent with his personal kit the next day, but Lt AE Hepper, RE would not miss a trip to Italy, having guessed the destination, and quietly walked out of hospital returning as a pillion passenger with the Despatch Rider. He was a sick man for some days and a hundred mile trip on a motor-cycle did not improve him. However, the OC surely needed his help at the Bizerta end.
To cut a long story short; eventually all the unit, less a rear party was concentrated at Bizerta. The Divisional Staff allotted a space for two trailers and as many men as could get aboard – approximately eighty-five – on the deck of HMS Cruiser “Penelope”. It was all a matter of quay-side auction of space and on the afternoon of 11 September 1943 they sailed out of port with little idea of what was happening except that Italy had recently surrendered. The balance of the transport returned under an MT, NCO to the old location with some very irate drivers. However, they were more than pleased some days later as will be seen.
Within twenty-three hours, as it was getting dark, airborne units were scrambling off into tenders and into the port of Taranto, including 261 Field Park Company, RE (Airborne), with no idea of where or what one could expect, except the consolation that the unit was in the second wave and the 9th Field Company, RE (Airborne) were already there in the first wave.
Men and kit came into the quay-side in “mixed bags”. However, all the personnel arrived and Captain WT Holgate marched off with the bulk of the unit to an area given vaguely off the map by a very harassed Staff-Captain, whilst Major JN Chivers remained with a small party to sort and stack the kit. In the course of one of the hardest night’s work done for some time, such essential equipment as a battalion sewing machine and one case of whisky was added to the unit equipment; the latter was distinctly necessary.
The main party kept on marching until on the outskirts of the town, and found a suitable bivouac area, and were joined in the late morning by the quay-side party riding on varied Italian transport collected by 9th Field Company, RE (Airborne). The Italians were conspicuous by their absence and no-one knew where the enemy was, except that a couple of nights previously, an armoured car had shot up the area having driven down the road on which the unit was now sitting.
The only transport the unit had was two essential workshop trailers and nothing to pull them with.
A few days were spent in this location, and the CRE put the OC a little more in the picture, as he now had seen the situation for himself and was acting as Chief Engineer of the area.
Here one must pause to recall the story of the only sapper in the unit to win an award during the war – Sapper DM Elkin. He was later to get a “Mention in Despatches” for going off at this stage with a platoon of the Special Air Service Battalion who went off by train into German occupied territory and released some Allied Prisoners of War in a cage near the line. Sapper Elkin was in charge on the footplate and was accompanied by an Italian railway inspector who was taken as a guarantee of good faith, since the situation was complicated by the Germans prohibiting trains running from Potenza – (we were doing the same at Taranto). So the Italians ran a shuttle service between one station distant from either. With the consequent signal difficulties, it was incumbent on the Italian inspector to make all arrangements that the private train had a clear run, which, fortunately, was successful.
The first real job was to prepare for an RE Stores Depot on the east side of Taranto, moving on anything from horse and cart and bicycle upwards. A convenient “winery” was found and proved very comfortable. With the assistance of 2nd Light Aid Detachment REME, who only carried their fitter’s kits, a bus and the odd car was obtained in exchange for a slip of paper – usually signed “Greta Garbo” or some other equally ridiculous name. An excavator was forcibly taken from an Italian firm of contractors, who then were contentedly digging an anti-tank ditch round the outskirts of the town some four miles away, and put into use preparing roads around the rail tracks adjacent to the site for the Stores Depot.
This work was completed by the unit and later taken over by Engineer Stores personnel, as even with a company of Italians under command who, incidentally, were all “Slavs” and not trusted by the Italians to carry arms, stores arriving by sea and being cleared from the town centre could not possibly be dealt with quickly enough.
Within a week, all equipment and transport that could be airborne was flown by “Dakota” aircraft. Quite unexpectedly it arrived one evening unknown to the unit or to Divisional Staff and appeared early one morning under Lt, (now Captain) DV Storrs, MC, RE – thirteen jeeps and trailers, all the drivers and previously loaded equipment. They had left the previous day; had breakfast in Africa, lunch in Sicily and tea in Italy and proved that the least likely unit to go to war by air is not an airborne Park Company, RE, as was also proved in the case of REME Workshops, although it must be remembered our American Allies were not too particular about centres-of-gravity, weights, etc, as we sometimes are.
Divisional HQ was by now some forty miles north at Gioia – so the unit moved up to Sammichele, some few miles further north and just south of Bari. The front line by this time was nearly up to Foggia.
Our exit from Taranto was greatly accelerated by CRASC of the 8th Indian Division who just arrived, set up in the courtyard of the winery without any encouragement and, peculiar to an Indian Division, brought fresh meat in the form of live goats. This was too much, as the Company’s movements and stores were severely curtailed by these animals.
The workshops, throughout the time had been abnormally busy on latrine construction as always – changing buses into command vehicles, tree felling, etc. The prize request at this stage was for the construction of half-a-dozen hockey balls – this was quite official and was supported by a Divisional letter which was immediately attached as an appendix to the unit’s War diary!!! And the job was executed. The Stores Troop [Section/Platoon] were on their normal work and, in addition, operating a couple of water points, which were later handed to the 8th Indian Division. This was a twenty-four hours a day job and demands increased daily.
Moving some forty miles to Sammichele portrayed the unit as a real circus. As the bus, jeeps, bicycles, tractors and Italian lorries halted frequently, they were overtaken by the efficient convoys of the 78th Infantry Division, who had now taken on the battle.
However, established in a first-class school with radio to each room, the unit was now in comparative comfort. There was little work now to be done, except in the workshops who set up as usual and produced whatever was asked for. The Stores Troop [Section/Platoon] were occupied on operation of a water point at Gioia and collection of training stores. After a few days, a recce was made in the Foggia area for a new location, but the move was cancelled since Divisional HQ was to remain in Gioia.
Life now became very static; training, TEWT’s and occasional recreational visits to Bari whiled away the time until, on 17 November the unit complete, less transport, boarded an Infantry Landing Craft at Taranto and set sail for Africa again. Airborne equipment only was brought back direct to the United Kingdom in a store ship – the balance being handed in to stores depots. Here the unit said “good-bye” to Lt DN Flatt, RE who left to join the 78th Infantry Division and was replaced by Lt WH Skinner, RE
A very pleasant but rough journey for the next four days brought the unit to Phillipville, having avoided many floating mines. At this rather unimpressive port, much of Air Landing Brigade was concentrated and waiting for troopship accommodation.
Here the survivors of an American ship told of how they had just been sunk by something like a flying bomb. This was the first heard of this weapon.
On 27 November the unit sailed on the SS “Duchess of Bedford” and arrived safely at Liverpool on 12 December 1943 after a collision in mid-Atlantic with the SS “Monarch of Bermuda”, which sent the latter off at high speed to return to Gibraltar.
Before leaving Phillipville, the unit was joined by the Rear party left in Africa and, thanks to the efforts of the NCO’s in charge of the Rear Party, Lance-Sergeant’s E Flower and GF Walker, RE, practically the whole of the equipment and kit left with them and all personnel were successfully joined to the main party. The Rear party had done a good job of work with little glory.
The unit’s station in the United Kingdom was to be in Lincolnshire for the next eight months. A camp at Mareham-le-Fen was made habitable by the company, and the village became a hive of activity after Xmas leave. The unit mobilized again on 10 February 1944 on the establishment for a Field Park Company, RE (Airborne). Much intensive training and works were carried out, including Divisional exercise “Mush” in which a part of the unit was airborne and operated in the Oxford area for nearly a week.
During March of that year, at very short notice, the OC was put in charge of the erection of services, etc, for thousand-men transit camps at various airfields around Oxfordshire and as far south as Trowbridge. Most of the unit was turned on to this work at very short notice and was assisted by other units of the Divisional RE it was a thankless task, but very necessary as all the camps were eventually used by airborne troops in the Normandy and Arnhem operations.
On 6 June 1944 the invasion and the 6th Airborne Division were the highlights of the news. The 1st Airborne Division seemed forgotten – but not for long. There were now many conferences and hasty plans being prepared and cancelled frequently; but, at last, after two months, things looked more definite.
FRANCE – BELGIUM – HOLLAND.
On 14 August the main body of the unit complete, less two detachments, found itself going aboard a cargo ship complete with transport, and, after a very harassed night added to be flying bombs in the London docks, found itself afloat for the Normandy beaches. The airborne detachments left behind were firstly a “Class 4” bulldozer and crew who were to fly with some of our American Allies in a “Hamilcar” glider and secondly, twenty-one other ranks of the Stores Troop [Platoon] under Lt WH Skinner, RE who were to fly with the 9th Field Company, RE (Airborne) as a stores collecting detachment.
The sea trip was fairly uneventful except for the tedious time of passing through the Straits of Dover, as the enemy still controlled the French coast. On arrival off Avranches, there was much anti-aircraft fire and noise, but, as the unit disembarked early on the morning of 16 August, it was little disturbed except by slight shell-fire. With difficulties, transport and personnel were joined up together, and eventually concentrated with other elements of the Division around Bayeux and formed what was known as “1st Airborne Division Seaborne Tail”. For three weeks this location was occupied by the unit – the boredom being relieved by local road repairing and the OC arranging independently with the Chief Engineer of 21st Army Group to take down four unwanted Bailey Bridges over the line of the River Orne as material was getting short in the forward areas. At this stage, Major J.N. Chivers, RE was appointed OC Divisional Troops, since the CREME has returned to the United Kingdom due to sickness.
This subsequently placed a heavy strain on the unit during movement, as the Second-in-Command was always moving ahead on reconnaissance for bivouac areas, and the OC was responsible for movement of all RE., Ordnance and REME units and parts of Divisional HQ, and later, a hundred odd Polish vehicles of the Polish Parachute Brigade.
From this time onwards it is practically impossible to recall definite times and dates, as the break-through was truly on and the Germans were retreating fast. However, on 16 September 1944 the unit passed into Belgium, and on 24 September 1944 into Holland.
Shortage of petrol, “compo” rations and poor weather for bivouacking, and little knowledge of the tactical situation whilst moving up the main axis was offset by the great welcome given to the troops passing through the various villages, towns and cities. Brussels will always be remembered in its new found liberation.
The move up was no easy game, especially at Eindhoven where the “corridor” was continually cut by the enemy and, fortunately for the unit, in one instance was cut a mile ahead of the Divisional Troops convoy. Mainly, it was a case of “follow the leader” and hope for the best – but this proved difficult to carry out, especially in respect of our Polish Allies when they, on the final move into Nijmegen on the night of 26 September, had to be continually shepherded and kept up together by the OC personally who spent five hours that night on a motor-cycle before the Divisional Troops units were settled into a pre-arranged concentration area east of the town. This area had been selected in error by a Staff Officer, and orders were given before it was realised that only a thin line of American Airborne troops were between the area and a strong force of the enemy in a small wood near the German frontier. This was plainly evident at daybreak, and throughout the stay in this area, because firstly there was continual artillery fire overhead into the centre of Nijmegen, and secondly, Company Sergeant Major. Norman in error, when “recce-ing” the area, took the wrong turning and was just in time to avoid getting into a pitched battle between the American Airborne troops and the enemy.
Only now did the unit know the true story of the Airborne Detachment. Plans had altered many times since its departure from the United Kingdom. Many gliders had been seen flying over on 17 September 1944 for the Arnhem operation, and it was with great regret that on 26 September Major JN Chivers, RE had to learn from those who escaped back to Nijmegen, exactly who, and how they had eventually set out.
The bulldozer and crew were never flown in and remained at Tarrant Rushton airfield until the unit returned to the United Kingdom [this is not correct, as L/Sgt. M Potter and his Detachment of nine men, with a bulldozer flew in Horsa C/N: 848, attached to the 9th Field Company, RE (Airborne)] The Stores Detachment of twenty-one Other Ranks under Lt WH Skinner, RE had been roughly split between the 9th Field Company, RE (Airborne), the 1st Parachute Squadron, RE and the 4th Parachute Squadron, RE, and at Arnhem had concentrated as far as possible with the former in local defence. Now there were twelve Other Ranks as survivors – it proved later that Lt WH Skinner, RE and Sapper LT Anderson had been killed and that the remaining eight were Prisoners of War.
After two nights in the Divisional concentration area the unit left for Louvain early on the morning of 28 September with the twelve very tired men of the Airborne Party; and, on the following day, the OC with key personnel and the survivors flew from Brussels to Lincolnshire, and thence back to the unit’s normal location at Mareham-le-Fen. Captain WT Holgate, RE was left with the balance of the Company, who were to follow by sea under Divisional arrangements.
The balance of the unit, or main party, now came under administrative command of Major R. Sellon, KOSB who throughout had been in command of the “Seaborne Tail”. His had been a thankless task, but one must pause to compliment him for the care, thought and kindness he had shown throughout the nine-hundred miles or more that had been travelled from the Normandy beaches.
On 1 October 1944 the balance of the unit moved off to an area previously recced by the Workshop Officer and escort in the Ostend area, at De Haan, and nightfall found them housed in a hydro on the outskirts of the town. Captain Holgate spent many hours at conferences and had the satisfaction of getting the party aboard the first Allied ship to enter Ostend docks on the night of 4 October. Much to everyone’s surprise and satisfaction, overnight and unknown to the sleeping unit, a naval party under a Petty Officer loaded all mechanical transport – and the afternoon of the 6th October found the landing ship tank in Tilbury, London. On the night of 7 October the party complete arrived back at Mareham-le-Fen after spending the night in a transit camp en route.
In England again, after a fourteen day leave, the unit found itself to be virtually intact and under a new CRE, Lt-Col ECW Myers, CBE, DSO., RE who had taken over from Lt-Col Henniker whilst the Seaborne element of the unit was in France.
Much training and re-organisation took place, and once more a new establishment was produced after many conferences and was implemented on 26th March 1945, re-designating the unit – “261 Airborne Park Squadron, R.E.” which originally might have been called – “Parachute Park Squadron, R.E.”, which both the CRE and the OC agreed was a little too much of a good thing!!
The set-up was now a little more practicable, but a strength of a hundred Other Ranks and five Officers was very low, but thanks to attached REME, ACC personnel and 1st reinforcements a total of a hundred and twenty-two all ranks could be mustered and split into four Troops – HQ, Workshops, Stores, Mechanical Equipment & Bridging, and LAD attached. Transport varying between ten three-ton vehicles and ten jeeps, not to mention three transporters for mechanical equipment, (three normal type angle-dozers being held), made life very much easier and the unit less like a circus.
Within a few weeks, the unit mobilized for the third time. Lt AE Hepper, RE the Workshops Officer, now appointed to Adjutant was replaced by Lt HB McDowell, RE and the tragic loss of Lt WH Skinner, RE was replaced by Lt WA Cross, RE. These two officers had by now been with the unit for some months and proved extremely enthusiastic with detached troops on training at the School of Military Engineering, Ripon, and elsewhere. The fifth officer Lt WJ Starling, RE arrived on 10 March and then the full complement was made up.
The unit assisted the making up of lost personnel during the early months by attempting to train forty-five recruits with eight weeks service to become airborne drivers. The aim was high, and considering the short time available, a number of suitable men were found and allocated to units of the Divisional RE.
Many RE exercises took place, and early May 1945 found the unit, complete with AF G1098, on a full scale exercise in the Epping Forest area. Nothing but confusion existed from this time on, as previously, OC’s had been warned that they may not return to normal locations. Whilst on the move in Suffolk, the exercise was cancelled and “261” was ordered to concentrate in a transit camp in the Braintree area. The 12 May 1945 found the Workshop Troop complete with all the tools they could load, the OC and a small HQ., and Workshop Officer, Lt HB McDowell, RE. emplaning for Norway in two aircraft, each with a jeep snugly housed in the bomb bay. Once again, after much controversy, the Second-in-Command and the balance of the unit, now known as the Rear Party, set off back to the normal location in Lincolnshire to follow on at a later date.
At dusk, on 12 May, this detachment of “261” found itself some sixty miles from Oslo on Gardemoen airfield. Its object was to assist, if necessary, in maintaining the services, light, gas, water, etc, in the capitol city, should the Germans cause trouble. As ever, no definite information could be given of what was to be expected. Fortunately, despite thousands of armed Germans, the co-operation of many helpful Norwegians left little to be done – our Norwegian Allies had seen to that and had things well in hand.
Previously selected report centres and billets chosen from the map proved very unsatisfactory, as each unit commander thought he was worthy of at least the late German Commander-in-Chief’s billet sumptuously furnished – and the same applied to the man. But, during the first few weeks, the unit moved three times, and later, to some fifteen miles out of the city to get peace and suitable accommodation at Lillestrom, since seaborne troops now arriving were taxing all accommodation to the utmost.
Very little was done by the unit before the arrival by sea of Lt WA Cross, RE. and the Workshop transport in the middle of May; although a certain amount of work, such as removal of charges and bulk explosives in various HQ’s was carried out by such personnel as there were with the assistance of a detachment of 5016 Airfield Construction Squadron, RAF. who were put under command.
The OC. sent a frantic signal on about the 20 May, and on the 26 May the HQ. with jeeps and motor-cycles arrived by air under command of Captain WT Holgate, RE which greatly relieved the cook and clerk position.
Settled in Lillestrom, the unit was instructed to recce and record all the stores dumps in the Oslo zone, and was able to hand to the CRE Works on arrival a fair survey of the stores position.
In early June, the mechanical transport sergeant, Sergeant T Shellard, arrived by sea with more transport and some mechanical equipment; and later, Lt WJ Starling, RE brought over the balance of personnel by air. By now the whole unit was in Norway, less a small rear party left in charge at the old location in England.
Many small works were done during the next few weeks – removal of pill boxes, filling bomb craters, road reconnaissance over some twelve-thousand miles of road which taxed transport and personnel to the utmost, but provided many sight-seeing tours, and organising German working parties wood cutting for the local authorities.
In addition there was the usual demand on workshop personnel for vast numbers of signs and work at Command Headquarters, and provision, on two occasions, of a “show” guard for a week each outside HQ, Norway Command.
Major JN Chivers, RE was put in charge of investigations into the fate of personnel lost in Operation “Freshman” in November 1942 as previously mentioned, and with the co-operation and hard work of all the Divisional RE units, War Crimes Investigation Branch and Lt PB Jacobsen (Norwegian Liaison Officer attached) managed, before leaving the country, to recover all except four of the bodies, and buried the balance of thirty Officers and Other Ranks including RAAF and Glider Pilots with full military honours at Oslo and Stavanger. The four men excepted were traced to have been buried at sea, by the Germans, an hours sailing from Stavanger.
Reinforcements being required for the 6th Airborne Division who were in late release groups were to be provided from the unit. Lieut H.B. McDowell, R.E. and Lieut W.A. Cross, R.E. were changed over-night on 4th June and replaced by Lt CD Hotchkiss, RE and Lt WM Brook, RE Shortly after his arrival, Lt Brook took over the duties as Second-in-Command, as Captain Holgate was re-called on 13 July to England to take over duties as Officer-in-Charge of RE Residues.
Towards the end of August there was little to do, but the hospitality of the Norwegian people filled the spare time of anyone who was at a loose end.
Lt CD Hotchkiss, RE and an advance party, including the Squadron Sergeant Major, left by air to prepare for the return of the unit to the United Kingdom, which was known to be going to take place shortly.
The 3September 1945 found the unit embarking from Oslo for England, with the exception of all the transport and a maintenance party who were left under Lt WJ Starling, RE to return later in a stores ship. There were many unhappy faces on the quay-side that day – their Norwegian friends did not want them to go, nor, for that matter, did all the Englishmen want to leave. But, to the shouts of, “Come back one day!” and, “Don’t forget to write!”, the main body of the unit under the OC severed, for the time being at any rate, their connection with Norway – it had been a great time.
A long trip through the Skaggerak and round the north of Scotland in a world now at peace was a never to be forgotten finale. On 7th September the unit was back in its normal location and was joined some few days later by the transport and drivers.
After the usual disembarkation leave, the unit moved down from Lincolnshire to join the rest of the Division who, on their return, had concentrated in Bulford, as the 6th Airborne Division had recently left for Palestine. Owing to the two-hundred odd miles separating him from the C.R.E., the O.C. had been unable to get definite rulings regarding the future until this time; and how it was quite apparent that the Division and R.E. units were to disband – there being required only one Airborne Division under peace time conditions, and further, the 1st Airborne Division was mainly made up y now of all ranks in reasonably early release groups.
Lt-Col J Winchester, MC, RE. (late OC. 9th Airborne Squadron, RE), who had taken over as CRE in Norway from Lt-Col. ECW Myers, C.B.E, DSO, R., and the Divisional RE were concentrated in Beacon Barracks, Bulford. RE personnel were to “wait out”, still as airborne units, and come under control of the War Office and directly under the Chief Engineer, Southern Command.
Employment of 261 Airborne Park squadron, R.E. was, as usual, workshop routine, erection of huts, mechanical equipment work, clearance of pipe mines in Devon and on airfields, and many other odd works. But the administrative position was becoming critical. All the key personnel – Quartermaster, Squadron Sergeant Major, Lt WM Brook, RE and Lt CD Hotchkiss, RE had been released under Class ‘A’ and ‘B’ schemes, resulting in the CRE’s decision that disbandment of the unit must take place at the end of January 1946.
Since the unit was originally of the Territorial Army it would not be truly dead. As from that date, it would be placed in the glorious state of “suspended animation”. For the time being, until a final decision is reached as to the future of the Territorial Army, its name only will remain as a memorial, presumably inscribed, as originally – “The 261st (West Country) Field Park Company, Royal Engineers.”
Written in December 1945 by Major JN Chivers, RE
Kindly transcribed by R Hilton